The Long Road to Steely Dan's 21st Century Comeback

L-R: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen at the Grammys in 2001
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Scott Gries/Getty Images

When Steely Dan hung it up toward the beginning of the '80s after a lengthy decade of jazz-rock perfection together, it was hard to imagine what would bring them back together. And yet: flash forward to the winter of 2001, when bandmates Donald Fagen and Walter Becker came up to the stage at the Grammy Awards not once, but four times to accept trophies for their eighth album Two Against Nature - including Album of the Year. How did they get there?

READ MORE: November 1980: Steely Dan Releases "Gaucho"

The duo were spent after the torturous recording and release of Gaucho in 1980. While it yielded a Top 10 hit (their third and final) in "Hey Nineteen," the arduous recording process took a toll on the pair creatively and personally. Becker, shaken by both the drug-related death of a girlfriend and a painful recovery from getting hit by a taxi, abandoned music entirely, moving to Hawaii to get sober and grow avocados. Fagen released a critically acclaimed solo album, 1982's The Nightfly, but wasn't heard from for some time.

READ MORE: June 1981: Steely Dan Begin "Indefinite Hiatus"

Eventually, the duo reconvened in 1986 - a year after Becker started working with Dan-inspired band China Crisis - and while the songs didn't come to fruition, the friendship remained. They began collaborating more in the '90s, producing each others' albums before officially reviving Steely Dan in 1993 for a series of successful tours.

Only at the end of the decade did they start to tinker on another record. In traditional Dan fashion, it featured a bevy of backing musicians, including legendary session guitarists Paul Jackson Jr., Dean Parks and Hugh McCracken, plus regular touring bassist Tom Barney and longtime engineer Roger Nichols at the helm. Esquire put the lyrical content pretty plainly in 2020, like most of the best Steely Dan records: "Its lyrics, full of scoundrels and pervs doing—well you’re never really sure what they’re up to, are you?—still manage to shock, decades later." "Cousin Dupree" was very much about incest, while "Janie Runaway" was a come-on to a young Floridian making her way in Manhattan. Again, par for Steely Dan's course.

What is surprising is how fans took to Two Against Nature even with the gap between studio records. It became their fourth Top 10 pop record - sharing space on the charts with rappers and boy bands - and its Grammy wins sent shockwaves through the industry. (The favorite to win Album of the Year in 2001 was Eminem's controversial The Marshall Mathers LP.)

The win ended up becoming something of a canard among Grammy handicappers and listmakers, who've often cited Nature's win as an example of the award voters being out of touch. No matter: Steely Dan kept going strong, following up three years later with their final studio album, Everything Must Go. Becker died of cancer in 2017, and Fagen has since upheld a promise to "keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band," touring consistently since then.

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